Battle of the Sexes (PG) National release Final Portrait (M) National release from Thursday
There’s a scene in the hugely entertaining new film Battle of the Sexes in which Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), a celebrated star of American tennis and a force behind the International Tennis Federation and the Association of Tennis Professionals, issues a press release proclaiming “men are simply more exciting to watch (play tennis) than women”.
The year is 1972 and that smug assertion is about to undergo a major rethink. The prizemoney offered to male tennis players is eight times more than the rewards available for women, and Billie Jean King, the 29-year-old female tennis star, is sick of being patronised and underpaid.
King and other female tennis players form the Women’s Tennis Association, whose members, including Australia’s Margaret Court, are promptly banned by the ATP. What follows next is the subject of the movie.
King is portrayed, quite superbly, by Emma Stone, who looks quite a bit like her and who has the fierce tenacity required for the role. With the help of publicist Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), a tobacco company is signed on to sponsor the women and the all-female tour begins.
Meanwhile Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, terrific), a tennis champion in the 1940s and now well into his 50s, decides to prove that men are superior to women. Riggs, whose lifestyle is financed by his wealthy, disdainful wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), is addicted to gambling and to making stupid pronouncements to the effect that women should stick to the kitchen and/or the bedroom where they belong.
King refuses to accept his challenge, but Court (Jessica McNamee) is willing; she’s soundly defeated by Riggs, paving the way for the celebrated 1973 contest between Riggs and King — the outcome of which is well known.
While all this is going on, King is going through personal upheaval. Married to her coach and manager, Larry King (Austin Stowell), she meets and falls in love with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser, who joins her on the tour. Their scenes together are handled with unusual delicacy.
There’s a great deal going on in the screenplay by British writer Simon Beaufoy, who’s best known for The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire. Beaufoy originally wrote the film for Danny Boyle, but the team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who made the delightful Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and the underrated Ruby Sparks (2012), have successfully blended the elements of a true story that happened 45 years ago with some contemporary commentary about sexuality and sexual relationships. The jaw-dropping chauvinism displayed by men in quite public positions seems almost unbelievable today, just as probably some of the anti-same-sex marriage commentaries will seem archaic in a few years. In Final Portrait, Geoffrey Rush plays Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti — correction, Rush inhabits the role. Just as he was David Helfgott, this new portrait of an eccentric but gifted artist offers an incredible role for Rush and he grabs it with both hands. I’ve no idea if this was what Giacometti was really like, but it doesn’t matter; Rush’s Giacometti — shabby, shambling, chainsmoking, muttering in Italian, French and English, charming and infuriating — is a thoroughly rounded, thoroughly complete, quite brilliant portrayal. The casting is perfect too: Jan Hladik’s etching of Giacometti could almost be an etching of Rush.
The film itself doesn’t quite match the performance, though it’s pretty interesting. It’s set in Paris in 1964, two years before the death of the artist. He lives in a rundown apartment in an uninviting back alley with Annette (Sylvie Testud), his long-suffering wife; his brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub), also an artist, lives upstairs. Diego is as calm and moderate as Alberto is hyper and mercurial (“My brother can only be happy when he’s desperate and uncomfortable”), while Annette yearns to live in a proper home, not this dingy rat-hole. Her frustration is amplified by the fact Alberto openly spends time with his mistress, Caroline (Clemence Poesy), even leaving the restaurant table where he’s dining with his wife to join his mistress at another table. Caroline is a prostitute whose pimp charges the artist for the time he spends with her — he pays in cash, cash from the sale of his artworks, cash that he hides all over the studio because he doesn’t trust banks (“But you’re Swiss!” he’s reminded. “Swiss Italian,” he responds, as if that makes all the difference.)
When the film begins, Alberto has proposed to his friend, James Lord (Armie Hammer), an American author and art critic, that he sit for a portrait, even though he tells him he has “the head of a brute. You look like a real thug”. Lord agrees enthusiastically, especially when Alberto assures him that the sitting won’t take long — “a few hours — an afternoon”. That, of course, is not what happens. Lord, described by Annette as “my husband’s next victim”, finds himself sitting, in a very precise position, day after day after day. He constantly has to reschedule his flight to New York, yet because he’s convinced that the end result will be magnificent, he perseveres where many might have called it a day after a couple of sittings.
One of the problems is that Giacometti is so easily distracted. If Caroline calls in, she has all his attention. Annette, too, can divert him from his purpose. He likes to go for walks, but even more he likes to head to the local bar, where they know him well enough to deliver his favourite food and wine to his table (a typical meal consists of eggs, two glasses of red wine, drunk in long gulps, and two cups of coffee). And he smokes, endlessly, constantly. He’s wreathed in cigarette smoke as he peers at his subject and at the canvas. The men converse, but usually the topic of conversation is depressing, turning to thoughts of suicide (“Death must be the most fascinating experience. I’m curious!”) He also critiques fellow artists (“Picasso could be so pompous!”)
Using only blacks and shades of grey, Giacometti creates what seems to Lord — and us — a magnificently original portrait, only to express his dissatisfaction, paint over it and start again. This goes on for days. “I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you,” he tells his increasingly frustrated subject.
Final Portrait is the first film actor Stanley Tucci has directed in almost 10 years, and in many ways it succeeds. My only real reservation is the needlessly wobbly camerawork employed by cinematographer Danny Cohen, who otherwise re-creates Paris in the 60s with steely, desaturated colours (even though the film was made in Britain). And it would surely have been an asset to have seen the actual portrait at the end of the film, something we are denied.
These are relatively minor quibbles, however. Tucci’s achievement is to have worked so successfully with one great artist, Rush, in the creative portrayal of another great artist.
THE JAW-DROPPING CHAUVINISM DISPLAYED BY MEN IN QUITE PUBLIC POSITIONS SEEMS ALMOST UNBELIEVABLE
Emma Stone and Steve Carell prepare to fight it out on court in Battle of the Sexes, above; Geoffrey Rush inhabits the character of Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti in Final Portrait, left